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What to wear at a UK graduation ceremony?

Updated: May 29, 2020

I have shopped for and styled hundreds of graduation students. Mother and daughter either turn up excited about the graduation shopping appointment or stressed-out and exhausted, from wasted hours walking around shops, not really knowing what they are looking for. If parents are confused about what their child should wear for a graduation ceremony, then you can only imagine how lost the graduate student must feel.

A graduation ceremony is an important milestone in a teenagers life, not forgetting the parent's life. The graduate will be called onto the graduation stage to collect the graduation certificate, in the daytime, usually walking up a set of steps in front of an audience, so it is important to feel confident and get the styling right so he/she feels:

- comfortable

- respectable

- confident

Three important style factors when shopping for a graduation day-time and night-time outfit. It is important to remember it is an academic award, not a film or music award so stay focused on daytime, British elegance. A respectable youthful outfit that works practically in the daytime, followed by a sit-down meal in a restaurant or at home to celebrate. If you also got an invite to a graduation ball in the evening, then the graduation outfit should resemble a ballgown.

British glamour since 1950

In 2012, I attended an absolutely fabulous fashion exhibition sponsored by Coutts called, Ballgowns at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London. It was marvellous. I truly dynamic interpretative of British glamour since 1950 with ballgowns spanning back 60 years, including my favourite British designer from Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen and Zandra Rhodes.

Not so long ago, ballgowns were rarely seen outside royal circles. Now they are worn throughout the year at social seasonal parties, private balls, graduation balls and special events which has allowed British designers to elaborate. What was once known as a ballgown, is now known as a red carpet dress. Back in 1953, Norman Hartnell (the designer of the Queen's coronation dress) was certified with exhaustion due to the formidable number of ballgown orders. During this time, the eyes of the world were focused on the coronation, which in turn drew attention on London's reputation for designing and producing grand dresses for formal occasions.

The way we shop has obviously changed over the years and certainly, the way consumers shop for special occasion wear has changed. Many people buy up to eight or nine dresses online, albeit 70% of what shoppers buy online is returned. Many graduate students shopping for a graduate ceremony outfit understand that trying clothes on, particularly special occasion wear is a must. I have shopped and styled hundreds of young graduate student and parents of the graduate student because they want to get it right. Graduation ceremony itineraries always differ.

The ritual of dressing up

Since the 1950s, occasions for wearing formal attire have changed. The ritual was a coming-out ball, where young women were formally introduced to society, this being the first occasion on which to wear a grand gown. Like a graduation ball, this may be the first time your daughter dresses up in a ballgown or your son wears a suit so it is important they feel the epitome of elegance.

The Itinerary should dictate what a graduate student and parent should wear.

If you are a graduate attending a university graduation ceremony and evening ball, you will have received two separate invitations, usually on different days. A daytime graduation ceremony and an evening invitation to a graduation ball. Not all universities organise an evening graduation ball so to be clear here are two noticeable different styles for a daytime graduatation ceremony and an evening graduation ball.

A). Daytime graduation ceremony (followed by a family celebration dinner/home meal).

Style: 1. comfortable 2. respectable 3. age appropriate 4. daytime wear (F=Female / M=Male) Colour palette (M/F): wear a colour that suits your colour palette Neckline (F): avoid showing cleavage, remember, you are receiving an academic award Fitting (M/F): the outfit needs to fit you properly, self-confidence is key on stage Undergarments: make sure you cant see through your dress/suit. Regardless of your dress size, bra and knicker lines don't look good on anyone, particularly on stage! Spaghetti straps and backless styles: It is a daytime ceremony avoid these styles Transparent fabric: Wear what you want, but a transparent (see-through) material is not age-appropriate in the daytime. Really high-heels: Tottering up steps onto the stage in a dress, cap, long cape and high-heels don't work. Opt for a stylish, comfortable, supportive shoe that works with the style of your daytime outfit. A super high stiletto is not an age-appropriate, day time shoe. B). Evening graduation ball Style: 1. sophisticated 2. age appropriate 3. glamorous 4. ballgown British glamour: traditional long ballgowns Fitting: the dress/suit should fit you properly and retain its shape, throughout the evening, whether you walk, sit, dance or stand. Undergarments: If you opt for a tightly fitted evening gown, ensure the material isn't too thin as know one wants to see your underwear. Avoid transparent, see-through fabrics or anything too sexy Neckline: avoid showing too much cleavage. Despite it being an evening ball, where everyone is dancing and having fun, it is not really age-appropriate for graduates to wear really low tops or anything too revealing. Think graduation ball, not night club! It is a ball, so the dress code is a long red carpet dress. A high-heel shoe will elongate your dress and figure. It will give you the height you require when wearing a gown. Most of the graduates I style are not used to wearing high-heels so I generally source a comfortable wide fitting shoe and tell them to practise wearing them at least three or four times before they go to the ball. Practice makes perfect. The ballgown should cover the shoe, a little bit of toe popping out when you walk is what you are after. Subscribe to my blog and read more 2-3 minute sustainable, fashion and shopping blogs.


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